I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Strike Is Dead; Long Live the Strike!

There's one thing I've learned about Chicago during the teachers strike: the Tribune is a rag. So I'm linking to the Sun-Times for news about the suspension of the strike:
The Chicago Teachers Union’s House of Delegates voted Tuesday to end its strike after seven days, meaning classes will be in session Wednesday for 350,000 Chicago Public Schools students.
“Everybody is going back to school,” said Jay Rehak, a delegate from Whitney Young High School.
Delegate Mike Bochner said “an overwhelming majority” of delegates voted to suspend the strike on a voice vote.
It's going to be days before we really get a sense of the final deal. But this part, if true, is kind of huge:
He said people were also pleased to see that the end of their three year contract held CPS to using growth as only 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation ratings, which is the minimum allowed by state law. 
However, the contract is optional in year four when the board has said it wants to give growth weight of 35%. 
“I’m not sure they’ll be a year four,” Martinek said. “A lot can happen in three years given the solidarity of the union. I’d say there’s going to be a new contract before year four.” 
The three year agreement puts “our next contract campaign right in the middle of the next mayoral election campaign.” 
That’s advantageous for the teachers, Martinek said, “because the mayor doesn’t want this sea of red walking through his city making him look like he doesn’t control things while he’s running for mayor.... of course, that’s going to be a stronger hand for us. we’ve shown that we can mobilize large numbers.”
What a difference a week-long strike makes. Remember, Jonah Edelman was hired by the plutocrats of Chicago to push through a law that required 75% of a union's membership to authorize a strike. He bragged to the Aspen jet-set that he had made it impossible for the teachers to strike; how satisfying it was to watch this smug jerk eat his words.

Now that the union knows it can muster support from its members, it doesn't have to worry nearly as much about that year-four change. But the extra 5% of test-based evaluation isn't the real issue anyway: it's the fact that Rahm Emanuel wants to do more than the state requires. He is trying to make a point. Why?

Value-Added Modeling, or VAM, is highly inaccurate; there's simply no debate about it. Every major researcher who's studied this method agrees it produces far too many errors for high-stakes decisions (and what we're proposing here in Jersey, called Student Growth Percentiles, is even worse). And it really doesn't matter if you make VAM 30% or 35% or 75% or even 10% of a teacher's evaluation: when it comes to things like layoffs or merit pay, some of the evaluation becomes all of the decision. You're using an instrument with totally phony precision to make fine distinctions between teachers; it's a doomed effort.

(Personal note: this is the most complicated but probably most important part of the entire debate. It's complex, but we have to explain this to people - particularly those who are on our side politically. I'm trying, Bruce Baker is trying, but it is not easy. We'll get it, but we're not there yet.)

The question the Chicago strike brought up is why someone like Emanuel insists on making tests a larger and larger part of teacher evaluations when all the evidence says this is a terrible thing to do. Yes, the testing companies that make money off of this are powerful, but that can't possibly explain the wholesale embrace of something both informed parents and informed teachers are vehemently opposed to.

Sure, the districts will save money by having more senior teachers run out of schools - but is it really that much money? Teacher attrition is already at 50% over five years (give or take), and it's worse in urban schools. We're already at the point where teachers with little experience have become commonplace; are we really going to save that much more by gutting seniority?

No, I think something deeper is happening, and I think the Chicago strike may be the beginning of a serious and long overdue conversation we need to have about the three-tier system of education we are developing in America: one tier for the elite, one for the middle class, and one for the working poor. It is telling that the plutocrats who push for standardized test-based teacher evaluations tend to send their own kids to schools that would never implement such a system.

They believe that their own children - perhaps by dint of their superior genetics? - ought to have an education that is exempt from this nonsense. They don't want their own kids to be drilled-and-killed by teachers whose livelihoods depend on whether their students fill in the right bubbles on a Scantron sheet. That's not for their progeny; their spawn, by divine right, are destined for greater things.

As for the proles? Better they learn their place early on. I know I've shown this a lot, but George Carlin, bless him, really did say it better than anyone else:

They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying -- lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want -- they want MORE for themselves and less for everybody else. But I'll tell you what they don't want. They DON'T want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that, that doesn't help them. That's against their interests. That's right. They don't want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they're getting ****** by system that threw them overboard 30 ******' years ago. They don't want that. You know what they want? They want OBEDIENT WORKERS. OBEDIENT WORKERS. People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly ******** jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime, and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. 
This is not just about education; it is about whether we want to live under an aristocracy. It is about whether it is acceptable for the upper class to send their children to schools that prepare them to lead, while the rest of America sends their children to schools that prepare them to follow. It is, at the end of the day, all about the status quo, a term the corporate reformers have cynically co-opted for themselves.

Chicago shows us that America is ready to have this conversation; we just have to be as courageous as the teachers of the CTU and bring this argument out into the open.

ADDING: More from Diane Ravitch.

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